Background & methods: National protests in the summer of 2020 drew attention to the significant presence of police in marginalized communities. Recent social movements have called for substantial police reforms, including "defunding the police," a phrase originating from a larger, historical abolition movement advocating that public investments be redirected away from the criminal justice system and into social services and health care. Although research has demonstrated the expansive role of police to respond a broad range of social problems and health emergencies, existing research has yet to fully explore the capacity for health insurance policy to influence rates of arrest in the population. To fill this gap, we examine the potential effect of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on arrests in 3,035 U.S. counties. We compare county-level arrests using FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program Data before and after Medicaid expansion in 2014-2016, relative to counties in non-expansion states. We use difference-in-differences (DID) models to estimate the change in arrests following Medicaid expansion for overall arrests, and violent, drug, and low-level arrests.
Results: Police arrests significantly declined following the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. Medicaid expansion produced a 20-32% negative difference in overall arrests rates in the first three years. We observe the largest negative differences for drug arrests: we find a 25-41% negative difference in drug arrests in the three years following Medicaid expansion, compared to non-expansion counties. We observe a 19-29% negative difference in arrests for violence in the three years after Medicaid expansion, and a decrease in low-level arrests between 24-28% in expansion counties compared to non-expansion counties. Our main results for drug arrests are robust to multiple sensitivity analyses, including a state-level model.
Conclusions: Evidence in this paper suggests that expanded Medicaid insurance reduced police arrests, particularly drug-related arrests. Combined with research showing the harmful health consequences of chronic policing in disadvantaged communities, greater insurance coverage creates new avenues for individuals to seek care, receive treatment, and avoid criminalization. As police reform is high on the agenda at the local, state, and federal level, our paper supports the perspective that broad health policy reforms can meaningfully reduce contact with the criminal justice system under historic conditions of mass criminalization.